- The Real Truth About Freelancing Vs. Working for a Boss
- You’ll Be Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do
- Starting Out
- Getting Work
You’re Not As Independent as You Think You Are
5.1 Example 1: You take on a project from a client
5.2 Example 2: You’re asked only to do your part
- What About Inquiries from Agencies and Studios?
- Are Agency Jerks Really So Bad?
- But What About the Freelancer Dream?
The Real Truth About Freelancing Vs. Working for a Boss
It’s a wonderful thought; being able to work wherever you like, whenever you like. Do you dream to travel the world, to finish a project and then step right out your door onto a tropical beach in Thailand?
Maybe you have a different dream, one that allows you to work comfortably at home and take your kids to the park whenever you like.
When you put it like that, working as a freelancer sounds like the perfect life. Who wouldn’t want more time and freedom to do whatever they desire? We tend to agree that freelancing can be a good idea. But is it a good idea for someone just starting out? Or should you get office experience first?
Let’s take a closer look at what the freelance lifestyle involves.
You’ll Be Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do
As a creative, you know that it’s important to be able to focus on your projects. Distractions are the death of creativity. Unfortunately, most freelance work requires you to be every part of the process. You have to always sell yourself and your skills, work directly and constantly with your clients, and manage every aspect of the project yourself. It’s extremely difficult as an inexperienced freelancer to dedicate the amount of concentration required for success.
When you’re just starting off as a freelancer, you’ll be creating accounts on digital freelance platforms. It’s a big time commitment to find those platforms, research what it takes to have a good profile, and build those profiles up. You’ll have to work cheap to get feedback for each profile. Until you get a large amount of feedback, you’ll be competing with the other new freelancers. This is a mess of a position to be in. You’re up against people without much skill who are desperate for any little bit of money they can make, undercutting each other in price to boost their own profiles.
On the client side, most aren’t skilled in evaluating quality and go for the cheaper priced options. They won’t find out until it’s too late that the freelancer they booked for cheap was cheap for a reason. A huge benefit of starting out with a creative agency or other company is that you don’t have to worry about landing clients. There’s an entire team dedicated to marketing, building a compelling website, and selling potential clients on big-money projects. It’s all taken out of your hands, allowing you to just focus on the creative.
This is one of the hardest parts of being a freelancer. You have to answer all messages and inquiries, even though most don’t amount to anything and some are just plain crazy. Reading them all takes enough time as it is; responding to them takes exponentially longer. At first you may get excited that people are reaching out. Then you realize that almost all of it is garbage— clients wanting you to work for free, competitors sending strange messages, people who ask countless questions but aren’t interested in your services, and so on. Many times you’ll also get messages from other freelancers like VO artists, writers, and so on wanting to partner up. You’ll learn to filter the bad from the good, but there will always be plenty of messages that seemed good but amounted to nothing. As a general rule, you’re lucky if out of every 10 inquiries you’ll get 1 project.
You’re Not As Independent as You Think You Are
Working as a freelancer may seem like the ultimate job for freedom, but you’ll still almost always be relying on other people. Since we’re a video production company, we’ll use animated videos for our examples.
Example 1: You take on a project from a client
So you’ve landed a solid client. They want an animated explainer video and are happy to pay a fair price for it. As a 2D Motion Graphics Designer, you’re excited. But you still need a team. You need to find other freelancers—a scriptwriter, illustrator, sound designer, voice talent, and maybe more. The best case scenario is that you have a big contact list of people you can go to. That still doesn’t guarantee any of them are available or interested.
If you don’t have people to fill all those roles, you’ll have to go and find them. This means sending dozens of emails and messages. And you’ll get replies; lots of them. The challenge is figuring out who is being honest about their work. Many will exaggerate their skills or involvement in a specific project. I remember nearly hiring a designer with an impressive reel showcasing a lot of famous music videos. Something didn’t add up, so I kept questioning him. Eventually, I found out that he worked as an intern on the videos getting coffee, NOT doing anything related to the graphics or video production. Sure, it saved us in the long run, but it still wasted a few hours of my time.
Worse, though, is if you do end up hiring the person. Then you’re stuck with someone who can’t give you the quality you promised. Yes, you can cut them for misrepresenting themselves, but you’ve probably already made a down payment. Plus, you have to now explain to your client why you can’t meet their deadline. And honestly, they don’t care that the guy lied. YOU’RE the one the client hired. YOU’RE the only one they will blame. And yes, it is YOUR responsibility.
Even if the freelancer is good, you can’t control them to meet deadlines. He/She isn’t in your office. They’re just a person trying to survive like you, working as much as they can because freelancers say yes to everybody. With each freelancer on your team, you open yourself to more possibilities that someone’s dog gets sick, or car breaks down, or kid’s football practice runs late, and the freelancer couldn’t get the work done in time.
And again, it all gets put on you. Your client isn’t interested in excuses. They just want the project done on time, on budget, and delivered with a smile. You don’t make that happen, you’re the one getting the awful ranking or feedback. Or, the client will just tell everyone how terrible it was to work with you. Either way, that’s a tough hit to recover from. Some never do.
Example 2: You’re asked only to do your part
This team freelance option sounds good at first. But this kind of request often comes from clients trying to save money, and those are the worst clients. They usually don’t have a marketing person. They don’t have a creative director. The client thinks they can do those things themselves, and maybe write the script too.
So the script is bad, whatever. You just won’t be putting this on your reel. Unfortunately, without those other members of the team, the bad script is the least of your problems. You won’t get a project brief, good creative direction (or ANY direction at all)—they’ll just give you some random ideas they think would look cool in a video. You won’t get production planning, or concrete deadlines. And we still haven’t gotten to the worst part yet. The client will have been just as poor of a communicator to anyone else who they hired, either previously or currently. You’ll inherit a mess of a project with the expectation to turn it into a masterpiece. You’ll say to yourself, OK, this is the only time. This isn’t my project. I’m not publishing it. I’ll just finish this madness, take my money, and forget it ever happened.
I can’t tell you how many projects I’ve encountered with this problem. Years ago, I would try to come in and fix them. Then I realized there was nothing I could do to fix them, plus now I’m officially a part of it. So not only is it not good for my portfolio, but I get bad a bad review or get blamed. It’s a lose-lose.
What About Inquiries from Agencies and Studios?
Okay, even though you left those jerks in the dust to do your own thing, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to do some side work for them? Well of course, the reason you’d do it is for the money. But keep in mind you’ll receive no credit; the agency is going to give their own team all the credit. They don’t want their own client to know that there was outside help. They want the client to be confident that the in-house team had full control the entire time.
Remember that you’re an artist, animator, developer, or creative. You’re not a business person. You probably don’t have many connections, or sales/presentation experience. Some people think they can do this, and a very small amount can. But for the most part, you saying that you will be a good salesperson is the same as the jerk salesperson from your old job saying he can do animation. It’s a joke, but it’s true at the same time.
As mentioned, it is possible to do. Just know that to succeed at that you need to be half businessperson and half artist. That’s extraordinarily rare, and also requires double the work. It’s much more possible you’ll end up a bad businessperson AND bad artist. Our brains are designed to do what we love or know how to do, otherwise the procrastinator takes control. You can refer to Tim Urban’s famous talk for more on that.
Of course, every professional should spend considerable time improving their skills. Mentors are invaluable, as is spending time with people more accomplished and talented than you. You never want to spend too much time in rooms where you’re the best or smartest one in there. You’ll fall behind while the industry passes you by. And if you’re spreading yourself too thin, that will happen. Instead of trying to multitask and be five different career professionals at the same time, instead focus on what you’re good at and what you want to do. Daniel Kahneman in his Nobel-Prize Winning book Thinking, Fast and Slow talks about that. Check this article out for more.
Are Agency Jerks Really So Bad?
Let’s go back to the “jerks” you run into from agencies and studios. There’s no dispute that some of them can be real unpleasant. They push deadlines, ask you to do the impossible, think their stupid ideas are the best ever, and so on. And who can forget when they promise the client something without consulting you first, leaving you to figure out how to deliver complicated work you don’t even think is a good idea.
But let’s face it—those “jerks” also invest money in the studio, website, and team without any guarantee they’ll ever get a client. Then they compete with the other jerks trying to grab clients by making even more impossible promises. Sometimes you need the jerks to do the things you don’t want to do. They handle the clients, chasing them down to get information and assets, and talk them out of their own bad ideas. So the next time that “jerk” asks you to do the impossible, remember that it was probably ten times more impossible when the client brought it up an hour earlier. And let’s also be honest—if you can make it happen and deliver the project on time, maybe the idea wasn’t so impossible in the first place.
But What About the Freelancer Dream?
So, after all that, you are still wondering how some people are doing great with freelancing? Many who seem to be doing great now won’t be for long. Ask them in a few years and see where they are—you’ll find most went back to agency jobs.
But yes, there are some living the dream. Those freelancers who can make it long-term as freelancers are the top professionals. They don’t spend much time finding projects or clients; usually having built connections during years of agency work. They also often have contracts with huge agencies. Everyone knows them because they’re that good. And of course, some use freelancing to work more, not less, and have assistants and then take on partners and open their own studio and become the jerks themselves.
You’re young. You have plenty of time to find a great studio/agency and a great team. Have fun and grow as a professional. You’ll have more time for travelling and hanging out after work. Make connections. Network. Build email lists. Jerks exist, but they’re there so they can handle clients 24/7 so you don’t have to, and also to help you grow. And when the time comes and you’ve got the skills and the experience and reputation, then you’ll be able to freelance and do all the things you dream. Maybe even open your own studio and become one of the jerks yourself.